Home > Bible Study, Dan Phillips, doctrines, hermeneutics, Proverbs > Proverbs 22:6: A Positive Promise, Or A Threat?

Proverbs 22:6: A Positive Promise, Or A Threat?


After getting sidetracked for a while with another book, I’ve returned to finish the last part of Dan Phillips’ God’s Wisdom in Proverbs book (reviewed previously here), including the lengthy section of appendices.  Appendix 3 discusses a rather interesting textual issue, from which I’ve learned that sometimes even when we study a verse in several good English translations, we don’t always have the correct meaning of the original Bible verse.

Proverbs 22:6 in all English translations (at least all the major and not so major ones I’ve checked), conveys a different meaning from the original Hebrew.  Here it is in the ESV:

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

As Phillips points out, that verse has come to be seen as a promise for Christian parents, a verse cherished by many believers.  If the parents bring up the child in the right way, in a good Christian home, the child will grow up in that good way and become a believer.  Some parents even take this as a promise and thus a guarantee; others at least recognize that the Proverbs, including this one, are general principles and not guarantees, but they still interpret the verse in a positive way as expressed in English Bibles.  I have come across a few homeschool Christian parents (with children still fairly young) that indeed have expressed the first view (promise, guarantee) regarding God and their family; when questioned, they have reasoned that if the child turns out bad, the parent must have failed that child in some way.  Elsewhere in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, Phillips also addresses that error, showing that Proverbs as well as the overall Bible sets blame sometimes on the parents, but sometimes on the wayward child.  After all, if the parents are 100% to blame for the child’s actions, then how could the law of Moses command that a rebellious adult child be stoned?  If parents were always at fault, surely the law would also stipulate that the parents be stoned.

The full chapter of material describes in more detail the actual Hebrew and a DJV-translation (Dan Phillips’ literal translation). In summary, the Hebrew text does not include the modifier of “should go,” and the referent for “way” is not stated but very likely is not “God’s way” but “his,” the child’s, way.  A very literal translation of the Hebrew is: Initiate for (with respect to) the child on the mouth of (according to) his way; even when he is old he will not turn from it. Understood this way, Proverbs 22:6 is really more of a threat of the bad way; a child brought up in his own way (of folly), will never depart from that way.

As I consider from overall principles of interpretation, we should not depend on any single verse for a particular doctrine.  As Spurgeon said so well, the ideas expressed in one place are found elsewhere in the Bible, so that our overall understanding does not rise or fall with a particular verse.  So here I note that my Bible software program, TheWord, cross-references Ephesians 6:4 as a similar  idea to the English-version of Proverbs 22:6:   Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  Yet the point made in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs is well taken, that we really cannot use Proverbs 22:6 as either a guarantee or general principle regarding bringing up children in a Christian home.  As to why all the English versions have this incorrect translation, the sad but true reality is tradition, going back to the original KJV translation.  Even modern translators have some reluctance to go against the trend when a particular rendering is well known and popular.

I’ve recently been using Google’s Translate service, which appears fairly accurate for at least the Latin and Greek-based languages (though lacking in its ability to translate from Oriental languages to English), and a useful website which includes online Bible text in numerous languages.  From perusal of the foreign-language versions of Proverbs 22:6, the different renderings perhaps point to the history of translation into those various languages.  Interestingly enough, the Latin vulgate has a more accurate rendering.  Here is a sampling of the Google-translations of several foreign-language Bibles, that agree with the original Hebrew meaning:

  •  Train up a child in the way even when he is old he will not depart from it – Latin Vulgate
  • As you get used to a boy, so he does not like when he grows old. – German (Luther) into English
  • Raises the boy under the rule of his way even when he grows old he will not depart from the point. – French Darby
  • Train up a child in the way of his, he will not depart from it, and when old. – Russian
    Train up a child in the way of his, that he, as he is old, does not depart from it – Afrikaans
    Train up a child in the way he, even when old, they will not depart from it. — Hungarian

On the other hand, a few of the European languages follow the KJV example:  Portugese, Norwegian, Bulgarian and Albanian, for instance.

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  1. June 29, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I long ago heard what you are saying preached. It was in a very legalistic church, but the understanding was that the verse was saying if you didn’t straighten out a child as it was growing, there would not likely come a miraculous change in later life.

    • June 29, 2012 at 11:15 am

      That’s interesting. Apparently it’s not the majority/popular view, but at least some churches, such as the one you mentioned, agree with Dan Phillips’ “minority” view.

  2. June 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    7:40 AM

    An excellent and thoughtful post Lynda regarding a troubling verse. This has led me to probably too much thinking (a Calvinistic problem undoubtedly) so if you cannot find any value in my lengthy response, please forgive me.

    I completely agree with your comment that “the point made in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs is well taken, that we really cannot use Proverbs 22:6 as either a guarantee or general principle regarding bringing up children in a Christian home.” Taking this verse as God’s promise to do right by the child because of the parent’s behavior/instruction/sanctification is dangerous to say the least, both in terms of how it can be detrimental to our faith, as well as in terms of how we might misunderstand God’s providence.

    As Christians we know that God is good, righteous and just to both the wicked and the righteous. However, we do not at any particular time know exactly why He is doing what he is doing in the lives of either the wicked or the righteous in His sovereignty and providence. The wicked are often described as living as though there is no pending judgment, and God seems anything but in a hurry to drag them to the gallows for punishment. This can be readily seen throughout the wisdom literature as a ‘general principle.’ In God’s providential timing, we have heard countless stories of God dealing harshly with the lives of the children of godly parents who have gone their own way, only to have ultimately bring the child back to a state of submission and repentance, where no amount of godly parenting had yet lead them in the way of righteousness. That wayward child may for years go down his own way before God deals with them in His providence.

    It seems that in all of this ‘providence’ business, we are left with one Biblical response: ultimately, we must rely on God’s sovereignty, goodness and righteousness at every turn of our lives and the lives of our children. We must rely on God’s eternal promises to make all things right in His time and manner. In general, the proverbs teach that God is good. He is good to the wicked who walk in their way, and He is good to the righteous who walk in His way. In the end, he will rectify all things according to His just and good desires. In the interim, we should consider it dangerous to blame ourselves for every instance of a child’s wandering and sinful behavior in light of God’s providential dealings with people.

    You stated that “(Dan Phillips’ literal translation) …. [suggests that] In summary, the Hebrew text does not include the modifier of “should go,” and the referent for “way” is not stated but very likely is not “God’s way” but “his,” the child’s, way.  A very literal translation of the Hebrew is: Initiate for (with respect to) the child on the mouth of (according to) his way; even when he is old he will not turn from it. Understood this way, Proverbs 22:6 is really more of a threat of the bad way; a child brought up in his own way (of folly), will never depart from that way.” This certainly seems to be the intent of the passage.

    Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Surely Proverbs 22:6 can be relegated to that part of the Wisdom literature that speaks to the ‘doctrine of original folly.’ Children are prone to follow their wrong way because of their sinful depravity often times in spite of their godly parents, and when they do not turn from that way, they will perish; hence, train them up in the way they should go: toward behaving in the knowledge of God and His truth.

    As I read your post I was drawn to two verses which potentially spoke to this issue of people “going their way” in Psalms 1 and 2:
    Psalm 1:6 “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
    Psalm 2:12 “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little.”

    The NET Bible suggests the following understanding of Psalm 1:6:
    “‘To “know a way” means, in its most basic sense, “to recognize/acknowledge a pathway, route, or prescribed way of life” (see Josh 3:4; Job 21:14; Ps 67:2; Isa 42:16; Jer 5:4–5). Here it could refer to the Lord recognizing the behavior of the godly and, by metonymy, rewarding their godliness with security and prosperity (resulting in the translation, “the LORD rewards the behavior of the godly”).

    Here it appears that the NET translators demonstrate why we have (errantly or not) taken this verse to potentially mean, as Phillips points out, “a promise for Christian parents, a verse cherished by many believers… [i.e.,]  If the parents bring up the child in the right way, in a good Christian home, the child will grow up in that good way and become a believer.  Some parents even take this as a promise and thus a guarantee.”

    It seems rather more reasonable to me that the NET Bible interpreters should have suggested that to “recognize/acknowledge a pathway, route, or prescribed way of life” is simply stating a ‘general principle’ of proverbial truth found throughout the Wisdom literature, which is: In general, if a child follows his/her folly, they will perish. That’s what always happens to sinners who go their own way without acknowledging the Lord.

    It is not necessary to suggest as they did that this verse should be interpreted to mean “God recognizes the godly, and he will justly reward them with security and prosperity,” because (1) that fails to take into account the biblical truth that God deals providentially with godly and wicked people alike, however he sees fit. Oftentimes he deals with them providentially in ways that suggest he is not remotely interested in their character being the reason for His action or inaction; (2) and it has a slight ring of the dreaded ‘works righteousness’ theology; i.e., God rewards the behavior of the godly with salvation.

    Yet oddly enough at the end of the same paragraph the NET Bible goes on to say: ‘”The present [NET]translation, ” Certainly, the LORD guards the way of the godly, but the way of the wicked ends in destruction,” takes the verb [guards] in the sense of “mark out” (cf. Job 23:10), which metonymically could mean “watch over, protect, guard.” In this case the “way of the godly” is not their behavior, but their course of life or destiny; a translation reflecting this would be “the LORD protects the lives of the godly” or “the LORD watches over the destiny of the godly” (cf. NEB, NIV, NRSV)… The “way of the wicked” may refer to their course of life (Ps 146:9; Prov 4:19; Jer. 12:1) or their sinful behavior (Prov 12:26; 15:9). The Hebrew imperfect verbal form probably describes here what typically happens, though one could take the form as indicating what will happen (“will perish”). ‘”

    Are they saying that God guards the [elect] godly so that they will not go the way of the wicked? Does this happen in spite of how the parents raise their child up? Is this an interesting ‘through the back door’ proof text for election?

    This NET Bible interpretation of Psalm 1:6 though then sees other translations as suggesting, strangely in contradiction to their earlier comment, that the ‘way’ of the wicked can refer to either their behavior OR to their course of life. Yet, for the godly, God marks out, guards, or watches over their way, but ‘the way of the godly does not refer to their behavior.’ I can only imagine that the struggle for understanding here must be related to a ‘works salvation’ issue. God doesn’t guard the way of the godly and reward them with security and prosperity because of their godly behavior, because we don’t want to give anyone the impression that God rewards what might only be the appearance of godliness with salvation.

    Personally, I’m struggling now with making the distinction between rewarding a godly way of life and that way of life being unrelated to one’s behavior.

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